Having someone ask, "Do you speak Mexican?" can be mind-boggling to a person born in a diverse community where English is not the only language spoken.
It certainly was to Daniel Lopez.
A native of Miami, Fla., Lopez came to Indiana four years ago when his wife undertook a doctoral program at Indiana University. Lopez, who is of Cuban heritage, now serves as executive director for the Indiana Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs. He was in Terre Haute on Tuesday to talk to Indiana State University students and staff about the changing demographics of Indiana.
As a matter of clarification, Lopez stated that the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" are often used interchangeably, but how a person identifies himself or herself is based on preference. For some people, "Hispanic" is a government-issued term that identifies people of Spanish heritage. It stems from the Caribbean nation of Hispaniola, a former Spanish colony. For others, Latino for men -- or Latina for women -- signifies a person of Latin American or South American culture and language, not necessarily Spanish-speaking.
That ill-stated question about language is one some ISU students have experienced as well. Beside the fact that "Mexican" is a nationality, not a language, the Latina students told Lopez that many people assume they are from Mexico. In fact, the graduate students said they are from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Ecuador.
That kind of diversity is becoming common in American universities, especially as higher education reaches out to more people of varying backgrounds. But that does not mean that schools are prepared to handle the culture that comes with the people.
For example, Alejandra Alvarado-Brizuela, a language education student, said many times when a Latino student comes to visit campus, it is not just the student who is visiting. The family of that student may have a harder time letting go and giving independence than the average American parent, who expects a child to go on to college and live life. A Latino family expects to keep close ties to their student and is essentially loaning their child to the university.
Ironically, said doctoral student Daniela Baez, ISU's admissions department has no Spanish-speaking staff that she knows of to handle questions from a family or to give campus tours to prospective students and their families.
Lopez agreed that building relationships and trust with the families of Spanish-speaking students is important for student success not only in college, but in all educational levels from kindergarten through high school.
In Indiana, the Hispanic and Latino population has seen dramatic growth during the past decade, Lopez said. In the past few years, in fact, births have outpaced immigration as the primary factor for that growth. That also is the national trend.
In 2000, 12.5 percent of the U.S. population was Latino. By 2010, that percentage had grown to 16 percent.
Latinos passed African Americans as the single largest minority population in the United States in 2009. And in 2010, births outpaced immigration as the largest factor in Latino population growth.
Nationally, if that trend continues, Lopez said, more than 25 percent of students in elementary schools across American in the year 2025 with have at least one parent of Latino ancestry.
In 1970, Indiana's population was about 5.19 million, with 4.8 million being classified as white and 359,000 as black. Jump ahead 40 years to 2010, and the population has grown to 6.44 million total. Of those people, 87 percent are white, while 9.1 percent are black, with another 6 percent as Latino.
"The Latino population has exploded," Lopez said. But Indiana's educational community still looks pretty much the same as it did 40 years ago -- with mostly white teachers and administrators, even though the student demographic has changed. That raises the question of whether teachers and administrators have the skill sets to make sure that all children have a chance to succeed in school, because communicating with the parents of the children is just as important as teaching the students.
Lopez showed statistics that list Lake, Marion, Elkhart, Allen and St. Joseph counties as having sizable Hispanic or Latino populations. Those counties have enough social infrastructure in place -- in the schools and communities and through organizations -- to help children and families succeed. That is not so true in Madison and Monroe counties, which have smaller but still sizable Latino populations. Vigo County, in comparison, has only about 2,500 Hispanic residents, according to Census data.
The majority of the Spanish speaking population in Indiana -- about 85 percent -- is of Mexican background, Lopez said. That is followed by Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Peru and El Salvador. Those figures are true for much of the Midwest, as well as most of the United States.
But consider, Lopez said, that while 85 percent of Indiana's Latino population is Mexican, there are 70 different dialects spoken in Mexico. It is a huge country, and there are cultural and linguistic differences between the groups living there, and moving here. It is important to remain sensitive to the differences among Latino populations, he said, and not lump people into one group as "speaking Mexican."
Lopez said his state office focuses on using local networks to reach various groups while providing effective ways to present information. Latino communities have to work together to improve situations across cultural or geographic links, he said.
"We need to become a state where multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism is considered welcomed, is promoted," Lopez said.
In education, students should be encouraged to learn a second language because it will help them in a global society and economy.
"It is important to emphasize to students the fact that Indiana 10 years ago didn't look the way it does now," he said, "and it won't look the same as it does today 10 years from now."
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